Eleven Madison Park

The final piece of my birthday celebration took place this past week.  A brief trip to New York City to visit a very dear friend included a few casual and delicious meals, as well as one superb dinner experience at Eleven Madison Park.  Having had one of the best meals of my life there last August, it seemed the natural choice for the “New York Birthday Dinner.”  I called exactly twenty-eight days ahead, just as the reservation line opened.  I secured a prime 8.30 pm table and requested the same young man who had been our captain last summer.  The restaurant is now more than a year into its title as one of just seven dining rooms to have earned four stars from the New York Times.  EMP (as it is known colloquially) underwent  a transformation last month, subtracting tables and seats, reconfiguring the bar area and radically altering the format of the menu.  This last change seemed the most threatening to me, causing some hesitation and much consternation as I planned for this meal.

The room is the vaulted lobby of the Metropolitan Life North Building, begun in 1928.  It has been restored to its original glory, details of polished nickel and burnished wood gleaming in the dim light of evening.  A well in the center is surrounded by a low balcony on three sides and an overhanging private dining room above.  Tables are very generously sized and lavishly well-spaced, especially by New York standards.  A subdued bar lines one wall and serves mostly as a way-station for diners waiting for their seats.  There is the muted hint of Miles Davis in the air and several spare flower arrangements on the sideboards.  The staff moves through space in a silent, smiling ballet;  I encountered no one who failed to make me feel welcome.

We spent a short while with the cocktail list and chose a brace of martinis:  Drew’s with Plymouth gin, mine with organic vodka.  The presentation of these classic drinks involves the appearance of a rolling cart tableside.  Chilled martini glasses are placed above your plate and a sterling silver oil can (a la The Wizard of Oz’s Tinman) is proffered, dispensing just the proper number of drops of vermouth into the vessel.  The frozen bottle of the appropriate spirit is then generously poured, right up to the rim.  The garnish of a twist is sliced with a silver peeler from a fresh lemon and dropped into the glass.  Lastly, a tiny dish of toasted and salted Marcona almonds lands next to your hand for easy snacking.

Ordering was our next task. (Somewhere in here, a square dish of the most ethereal gougeres ever appeared and we made quick work of those!) Rather than a traditional menu with categories (such as appetizers and entrees) and descriptions of individual dishes, the new format here involves a grid with sixteen squares.  Each row lists just four words, encouraging one to have a conversation with the server about likes, preferences and general expectations.  We chose to minimize this discussion, leaving as much surprise in the equation as possible.  Every single noun listed sounded enticing, so we set about eliminating  what appealed the least.  When we were done, we had settled on a course of action that would take us from land to sea to sky and back again.

Our odyssey began with a progression of hors d’oeuvres presented by the kitchen staff that had prepared them.  We asked each of them multiple questions and found that really responded to the attention of being in the dining room, with the guests.  First up was a diminutive teacup, plumbed with a tiny bouquet garni of sage and rosemary tied with raffia, into which was poured a pale brown “tea.”  The aroma that rose was russet potato, roasted to a rich, dark hue.  “Baked potato tea” was a new experience for both of us.  The counterpoint to this arrived on a block of black resin, cut with grooves.  Curling up out of these, a potato crisp dabbed with creme fraiche and dotted with chives.

Next up, after a short interval, a soup spoon with a truncated handle, into the bowl of which was lain a mouthful of smoked Balik salmon.  The garnish of dill was totally superfluous.  The fish simply melted on the tongue, leaving only a rich, buttery afterglow tinged with the lightest bit of smoke.  The resin block appeared again, this time laden with a rice crisp topped with Hamachi tartare, enhanced with shiso leaf and lime.

Our final treat was a duo of smoked sturgeon bites.  The cold began with a sliver of house smoked sturgeon, nestled into a tiny leaf of Baby Gem lettuce, finished with a shaving of French Breakfast radish.  The warm portion of this course was presented in a sheared off eggshell, set in a porcelain egg cup.  A delicate froth was all we saw at first, a savory sabayon of smoked sturgeon.  Hidden further down were nuggets of the fish, the bottom of the shell bright green with chive oil.  This was one of my favorites of the night.

Now the the starters were out of the way, we could move on to the portions of the menu we had actually ordered.  Bread service arrived:  an individual baguette, an olive and rosemary roll, cultured cow butter, goat butter and a dish of flaked fleur de sel.  Our first glasses of wine were presented as well.  We chose a Riesling and a Gewurztraminer, both from Alsace, for these initial courses.  The balance of sweetness and acid was the perfect foil for the rich food it would accompany.

Foie gras is one of my favorite indulgences and this iteration did not disappoint.  A perfect ring of liver encased a rillettes of wild boar, lightened with the dollop of brussels sprout puree on top.  A diagonally bisected, thickly cut slice of toasted juniper brioche landed alongside, on its own plate.  This dish was sheer bliss!  The matching course was a preparation involving a giant, meltingly tender sea scallop, sweet shrimp and a subtle orange-hued sea urchin foam.  Although delicious, the foie gras was the clear winner here.

A second pair of appetizers followed.  The first was prawns.  My  thoughts are unclear on this plate…it seems all my memory cells for this course were focused on the tortelloni served simultaneously.  These tender pillows of hand rolled egg pasta were filled with an unctuous, toothsome blend of chestnuts and Parmigiano Reggiano.  They reclined in a puddle of fresh cream, were topped with chestnut foam and then showered, tableside, with a deluge of white truffle shavings.  I am usually not a big fan of truffles, but the combination of the fungus, the chestnuts and the cream was ethereal.

Our first entrees were next.  A venison loin, presented as two tall cylinders, was perfectly browned on the outside and rosy pink inside.  The plate included an ovoid slice of poached pear, its core removed and replaced with a circle of bacon panna cotta. It was a savory, silky and utterly decadent accompaniment.  A juicy and vaguely pink pork loin chop was served simultaneously, garnished with fresh juniper berries and the tiniest brussels sprouts you can imagine.  At this point we had switched to red wine, a Syrah from the Rhone Valley.

Our final savory course was not on the regular menu.  It was my understanding that this dish was only available by pre-ordering it when the reservation was made.  I had passed on doing this, wanting to leave as much as possible to serendipity and surprise.  When it was offered to us during the ordering process, though, my ears perked up and I nodded vigorously.   Now it was time for the payoff.  I watched Drew’s eyes light up as the cart rolled up behind me.  The duck had arrived!  An entire Muscovy duck, roasted to a glistening, crackling finish with honey and lavender.  Our waiter carved it deftly and swiftly, crowning it with fresh huckleberries and huckleberry puree.  We were so stuffed at this point that we left half of it to take home.  It was certainly a delicious addition to our meal, as well as a beautiful one.

As we sat back in our chairs, contemplating the desserts to come, the table was cleared of the previous courses’ accouterment. Bread and butter service were removed, crumbs cleared, wine glasses whisked away.  A pre-dessert was brought…a malted milk shake.  It came in the form of malted ice cream sandwiched with the thinnest sheets of meringue imaginable.  The inclusion of an olive oil emulsion, sea salt and cracked black pepper provided another twist on a classic flavor profile.

Our chosen desserts were next to the table.  A course of three types of chevre, presented in a basket with straw, returned plated with thin crisps of fruit and nut bread.  The apple dessert included a slice of moist apple cake, a quenelle of apple ice cream, a perfect sphere of apple flesh coated in salted caramel and an intriguing little globe of walnut crumble. A bottle of Poire William, replete with a whole pear suspended in glass, landed on the table with this course.  It was ours to drink, as much as we pleased, for the duration of the meal.  Flavor overload had started to set in by this point.

We ordered coffee service as well.  Eleven Madison Park has recently upped their game in this area, offering not only traditional coffee and espresso drinks, but also tableside theater with Chemex or Siphon preparations.  We chose the latter and were treated to a recreation of a science experiment/dinner party experience from the nineteenth century, updated for the 21st century.  (You can watch a video of this process at Intelligentsia Coffee here.)  Another rolling cart arrived, laden with glassware, cups and a Bunsen burner.  Fueled to a white-hot glow with butane, it was placed underneath a globe of glass filled with spring water.  A second globe rested on top, connected by a slender neck of glass threaded with a thin chain and a filter.  The water boiled and rose into the upper chamber.  Once a digital thermometer guaranteed the correct temperature (precisely 199 degrees!), freshly ground beans were spooned into the water, gently stirred, and a stopwatch was activated (precisely 45 seconds!)   During this interval, the lower globe was gently fanned by our waiter, lowering the ambient temperature to encourage the finished brew to return to its original home as perfect coffee.  We were poured only half a cup each with the proviso that the brew would probably be too hot to drink for some minutes.  Neither cream nor sugar was offered: none was needed.  It was indeed a very fine cup of coffee, hoopla notwithstanding.

The final bites of the evening were brought by a member of the pastry department.  Three little mouthfuls, each more amazing than the last.  To begin, a perfect sphere of warm, cinnamon sugar dusted doughnut, filled with still-cold ice cream.  Then, a piece of translucent brittle, fortified with butternut squash puree and studded with salted pepitas.  Lastly, a chocolate truffle.  This was roughly shaped and pitch-black on the outside, the perfect visual take on the fungus of the same name.  The surprise came when it hit my tongue:  the sweetness of fine chocolate tinged with a hit of real, savory truffle.

We were exhausted by this point.  We had been at the table for more than four hours.  We had seen some twenty plates put before us.  The room was nearly empty as the clock passed midnight.  As we wearily rose, the bill having been settled, we were presented with our coats and a jar of housemade granola with the Eleven Madison Park label affixed to the lid.  A little snack for breakfast, should we happen to wake up hungry!


Birthday in Las Vegas

Las Vegas. A name that instantly evokes so many images for all of us. I hesitate to write this, wondering if it would be possible to add any new thoughts to the history of writing about this storied destination. It’s not as if we had any experiences different from the legions of visitors before (and after) us. In the end, I just wanted to make a record of a wonderful vacation together. The trip was Tony’s fiftieth birthday present to me. It was to have been a surprise, but my nosiness and impatience forced his hand, revealing the details many months ahead of time. He has the patience of a saint and I continue to hope that some of that will rub off on me.

He booked a three night air and hotel package that included non-stop flights (yay!), a luxury room at Paris (double yay!) and a 24 hour buffet pass (triple yay!). My annual fee for my airline credit card has as one of its benefits a pair of passes to its corporate/first class lounge. We snacked on bagels and coffee, took advantage of the free Wi-Fi and relaxed in leather armchairs before boarding our plane. After a painless flight, we landed on that Tuesday morning with only a couple of small carry-on bags and headed for the taxi line. Our first stroke of luck came when we were directed to the cab stand slot numbered ONE. This must portend something good, I thought. We were met at the hotel with only a short line at the front desk and given immediate access to our rooms, despite being there 4 hours ahead of the regular check-in time. We dropped our bags and headed out into the heat of the morning.

Our first stop was the Buffet at Bellagio. We arrived to find a line that was moving at a positively glacial pace. We figured out later that it was the transition time from breakfast to lunch, with thrifty guests taking advantage of the opportunity to pay for the earlier, cheaper meal and still eat a full savory menu. The array of choices was quite astonishing. There were several different green salads; a variety of cold vegetable and pasta salads; sliced prosciutto, salame, ham and cheeses; platters of fresh fruit; hand rolled sushi and sashimi; smoked salmon and whitefish; steamed, peeled shrimp; roast turkey, chicken, lamb and pork, along with two kinds of steak; a multitude of grilled and sauteed vegetables; a build your own pasta bar, alongside four kinds of stuffed pastas in sauce; a stirfry station, alongside a selection of prepared Asian dishes; and finally, a large display of breads. Then there were the desserts! There were at least a dozen different plated options, as well as an assortment of cookies, sorbets and ice creams and a chocolate fountain.

We thoroughly enjoyed the food here. Everything we ate was fresh and beautiful. The only issue we had was the service. It took far too long to get our server to take our drink orders, in my opinion. By the time I came back with my desserts, there were four plates waiting to be removed from our table. In fact, some tables near us were never cleared of dirty dishes and glassware for the entire hour that we sat there. The staff seemed unhappy and spent long stretches talking with one another, rather than doing their jobs. As someone who has worked in restaurants and is acutely aware of the staff around me, this made the whole experience less than ideal.

The balance of the afternoon was spent walking the south end of the Strip. Our first stop, the Bellagio, was still a premier property even after all these years. The generous use of marble, the colorful awnings on the casino floor, the Chihuly installation in the lobby and the 27 foot high chocolate waterfall at Jean-Philippe Patisserie make for a magical setting.

Moving south, we next stopped at Monte Carlo. The theme here is the tiny principality on the Mediterranean coast, the main theme of said principality being its casinos. One door south is New York, New York. This interior was one our least favorites, mostly because of its New Yorkiness. Dark, crowded, dirty, noisy and expensive, it was all the things we hate about the city. The exterior architecture is quite a sight, but it’s marred by a rollercoaster running through it. I suppose for some this must be fun, but it’s definitely not my cup of tea. Beyond that sat Excalibur, a sort of pathetic visit to Merry Olde England. Next up was Luxor, it’s main property shaped as a giant pyramid with a gazillion-watt beam of light shooting straight into space from its apex. The interior attempts at Phoenician decor were somewhat less than successful. The final property at the south end of the Strip is the luxurious Mandalay Bay, which we did not visit.

Our entertainment for the evening was the Cirque du Soleil show Zumanity. This is the third official Cirque production I have seen. We have also seen four or five “pretend” Cirque shows on our cruises, featuring many of the same styles of acts. We decided that we have seen enough of these! Once you put together a string of performers from jugglers to trapezists to gymnasts to someone spinning from their neck, the only thing you can do to make it seem new is put them in different costumes and give them a different theme. We have seen them dressed up as Peter Pan, a Chinese Opera, a Bollywood movie and, in Vegas, as a sex show. The feats are truly impressive, don’t get me wrong. I think I have just become jaded.

The next morning we boarded a bus for Hoover Dam. Our driver gave us lots of info on Las Vegas on our ride out and added a stop at the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign for a photo opportunity. Once we arrived at the dam site, we took an escorted tour that included the Turbine Room. The sheer size of this entire operation was amazing. Lots of superlatives can be used to describe it, but you really need to see it to understand the scope of it. It brought to mind our feelings about the Panama Canal. It is just incredible to think that mankind had the hubris to even attempt such massive projects. If you are in Las Vegas for more than a day, I would definitely recommend a tour out that way.

That afternoon, we returned to our hotel and activated our “Buffet of Buffets” wristband. This pass, included in our hotel package, offered twenty-four hours of continuous access to seven of the Strip’s buffets. By starting it in the middle of dinner service, we were able to squeeze four meals out of it (dinner, breakfast, lunch and another dinner). We started with dinner at the Flamingo, in the shadow of a twenty story high photo mural of Donny and Marie. The food was alright, but not the best we had. What was amazing was the view from our table. We overlooked the hotel’s Wildlife Habitat and had views of black swans, penguins and, of course, flamingos. It was quite a sight!

After another short night’s sleep, we headed for the breakfast buffet at Planet Hollywood. This was an amazing setup! They had just about anything you can imagine for the day’s first meal. The food was fresh, hot and well-seasoned. The service was really great, too. Actually, almost everyone we encountered in Las Vegas was just wonderful. Folks seemed truly happy to be helping you wherever we went. Bus drivers, cabbies, hotel desk clerk, cocktail waitresses, buffet servers, and even hotel maids were gracious and friendly. I talked to a couple of them about this fact and they responded, “We want you to come back!” Why can’t people everywhere reach this same conclusion?

We spent the rest of the morning visiting other properties. My personal favorite was Aria and the shopping center connected to it, Crystals. These properties are part of the brand new City Center, a cluster of hotels, casinos and shopping between Monte Carlo and Bellagio. Aria’s casino floor was elegant and refined, a welcome change of pace from what we had been seeing. Crystals is a soaring, light-filled space, the center of which is dominated by a restaurant suspended in midair, encased in a wooden “tree.” We also stopped in at Caesar’s Palace, which is the polar opposite of all that restraint. The decor here was completely over the top. If you can imagine a gaudy Roman enclave, you can imagine Caesar’s. We paid our respects across the street at the Venetian, too. Here, the streets (and even a canal) of Venice are lovingly recreated, right up to endless frescoed ceiling reminiscent of Michelangelo. Never have so many angelic cherubs gazed down upon so much depraved excess.

There were brief interludes at the Wynn (gorgeous, still shiny-new), Treasure Island (campy, smelling faintly of coconut and jasmine?), the Mirage (slick, smooth beauty), the Flamingo (seriously old school, despite attempts at modernization), Harrah’s (the Carnival theme is worn thin), Bally’s (what theme?) and finally, back home to Paris. We loved this property, and not just for the half-size Eiffel Tower  and Arc de Triomphe out front. The casino floor is dressed like a Parisian street, with faux gaslights and a blue and white-clouded sky. Cobblestones underfoot and diminutive streetscapes complete the effect. Even the reception area gets into the act with its Versailles-esque pastiche of mirrors, chandeliers and gilt.

The last evening of our visit we took the bus up to Fremont Street to see what had become of the Las Vegas of the past. Millions of dollars have been poured into these early casinos, restoring them to their original glory. Classics such as the 4 Queens, Binion’s and the Golden Nugget continue to be crowded even today. The addition of the Fremont Street Experience is a big draw, too, offering a light show on an arched roof above the street. If you are going to Vegas, you should definitely check that out.

We ate some wonderful things during our stay. I enjoyed a different French pastry every day (in celebration of my birthday), including a pot of luxurious chocolate mousse; a delicate raspberry and almond tart; and finally a madeleine, a financier and a tiny chocolate cake. We ate a light supper one evening on the edge of the terrace at Paris, in the restaurant Mon Ami Gabi. We started with a classic salad of frisee, lardons and a poached egg, followed by scallops baked under a blanket of bechamel and cheese. At other stops along the way there were crepes filled with Nutella; more shrimp and crab legs than I have had in ages; an excellent cheese danish; and lots and lots of coffee.

We had a wonderful time, although we agreed on the third morning, as we packed for the trip home, that seventy-two hours was just enough time to spend there. We saw the sights. We ate the buffets. We paid the “Casino Tax” everywhere we went…meaning I gambled and lost in every hotel. We enjoyed the complimentary cocktails on the casino floor, even while playing penny slots. It was a relaxing time together, with not a care in the world.

Gibson’s Steakhouse, Rosemont, IL

Dinner last night at Gibson’s Steakhouse was a classic, grownup evening out. Our 7:30 pm reservation had us entering into a room packed to the rafters with diners and waiters and busboys. We wended our way through the closely spaced tables to the somewhat less crowded, enclosed porch that runs along the outside of the restaurant. Tucked into a corner, we had a great vantage point for viewing the scene without being stuck in the middle of the traffic flow. It was just the first of many lucky breaks we had in our night. The sum of these, added into the Gibson’s experience, made for a truly memorable evening.

The room has the look of an old school steakhouse, through and through. Rich, dark woods, lots of low-wattage, indirect lighting and row upon row of celebrity headshots (“Loved the steak! All my best, Don Rickles”) work to make the place feel like it’s been there forever. The fact that it actually exists in a suburban convention center hotel needs to be overcome. Once you are ensconced in your seat with a martini in front of you and a whie-coated waiter at your elbow, it’s easy to lose yourself in the fantasy.

The tables are topped with two tablecloths, an open, black-and-white plaid overlaid with traditional white. Small, shaded lamps and a shaker of Gibson’s private label Seasoned Salt stand sentinel at table’s edge. Dark wood blinds at the window added to the supper club feel. Plain white napkins and no nonsense flatware complete the scene. No flowers and no frou-frou: we are here for steak.

Our server was clearly a veteran of many years on the job. She was personable, warm and friendly while maintaining a calm, professional aspect at all times. She made us feel that we were the only table she was waiting on, or at least the only one she really cared about. She used our first interaction to not only get our drink orders, but to gauge our intentions for the evening. Were we in a hurry? Was our appointment together for business or pleasure? Were we just going to order, eat and leave, or were we in it for the long haul? She figured out right away that we planned on making a night of it, that we had no further agenda than the menus we had in front of us.

The menu offers very few surprises. The appetizers are the typical roster: oysters, shrimp or lobster cocktail, an avocado stuffed with crabmeat, chopped chicken liver and home cured salmon. There are steaks, about a dozen of them. A variety of fish entrees, crab legs and lobster tails, pork or lamb or veal chops, a whole roasted chicken and a few sandwiches round out the choices. The classic sides include the biggest twice-baked potato we’d ever seen; sauteed or creamed spinach; broccoli or asparagus with hollandaise; mashed or hash brown potatoes; and sauteed mushrooms. This is not an adventurous menu…but who comes to a steakhouse for adventure?

We ordered martinis all around and worked on a game plan for our meal. While we were working things out, our server came by with a platter of raw steaks to explain our options. She explained about the different cuts, the various sizes and which were her favorites. We discussed with her what we wanted to eat and she made recommendations to help us out. We ended up with a perfect mix of steak, seafood and sides.

After an appropriate interval, the starters arrived, Six briny fresh Delaware Bay oysters, presented in a pewter seashell, beached on a bed of ice, sang the song of the sea. A perfectly ripe avocado half came brimming with jumbo lump crabmeat. Spicy lobster cocktail contained perfectly sweet, perfectly cooked chunks of claw and tail meat resting on a thick slab of tomato. Even a simple salad of slice beefsteak tomato and Vidalia onion, topped with chunks of blue cheese, did not disappoint. We plowed right through these plates, ordered a second round of cocktails and settled in to wait for our steaks.

The beef here is USDA Prime, aged for 35 days and cooked in an infrared broiler at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. This means every cut comes out with a beautiful char crust on the outside, even when it’s ordered rare. There are no pale, wan steaks here. Three of us ordered W.R.’s Chicago cut, which translates to a bone-in ribeye. Clocking in at 19 ounces, this is one serious piece of beef. We ordered it rare, medium rare and medium and it came out cooked three distinct ways, exactly matching the descriptions our server had given us. We were thrilled with these. They were tender and packed with beefy goodness. An order of sauteed filet medallions, served with broccoli, was also a winner. Bowls of grated horseradish and creamy horseradish sauce were all we needed to complete the picture. Except for the sides!

The side dishes here almost stole the show. With the exception of a dish of peeled asparagus with hollandaise that was merely delicious, the rest of them rocked. The double baked potato easily weighed a pound and a half. It was creamy, savory and molten with cheddar. An innocuous looking bowl of creamed spinach ended up being one of our favorites of the night. The best of all was an oval dish of hash browns. These had been sauteed to a golden turn on a griddle and then baked in their porcelain vessel until they were crispy and crunchy and exploding with flavor. We fought over the last of these, wishing we had ordered two dishes.

While we were plowing through our steaks, we saw an absolutely enormous dessert sail by. We flagged down our server, who told us that this was their special chocolate cake. She also told us what we had seen was the last piece in the house. She recommended the strawberry shortcake and we asked her to set one aside for us. After finishing what we could of our entrees, we had the leftovers packed to go and sat back for a rest. The shortcake arrived soon there after. The biscuit itself was a perfect mix of textures and flavors. There were crunchy edges; a tender center that soaked up all the strawberry juices; just enough sweetness to let you know it was dessert; even a hint of salt to make it interesting. There was a massive pile of strawberries involved, too, some between the layers and the rest ladled over the top. A crown of whipped cream adorned the peak. Altogether, this was the size of an eight inch, double layer cake. Remarkably, we managed to completely decimate it.

We had spent some three hours at the table. We had gotten to know our server pretty well. Turns out she grew up just a short hop from one our fellow diners. We were completely stuffed and still had enough leftovers for steak sandwiches the next day. (They thoughtfully packed up some of that creamy horseradish with our steaks.) The jazz trio in the bar just behind us was really getting into it and this point. Were it not for a fast-approaching food coma, we would have stayed in the bar and had a nightcap. Even at 11:00 pm, the room showed no signs of slowing down.

Gibson’s is located at 5464 North River Road in Rosemont, IL. They can be reached at (847) 928-9900 or online at http://www.gibsonssteakhouse.com. Additional locations downtown on Rush Street (the original) and in Oakbrook offer a similar menu and experience, and all three are open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

My Addiction: The Truth Revealed

My name is Jason and I am addicted….to COFFEE.

I have been drinking coffee since I was 16 years old.  (What does that make it now…10 years?  15?  HA!)  In the beginning, I mimicked the way my parents drank it, which was straight up black.  Over the years, I have added more and more cream to it, but never any sugar.  The only time I’ll take it plain is when the only creamer available is powdered.  This abominable concoction is sweet (probably to cover up the chemical taste) and just ruins the coffee for me.

So of course I am writing this with a cup by my side (latte with and extra shot).  This is my second cup of the day.  The first gets administered immediately when I roll out of bed.  The speed at which this coffee is prepared is of the utmost importance.  For more than a decade, I actually heated my milk and water in the microwave and drank instant.  That way I was drinking coffee 90 seconds after getting up.  My coffeemaker right now is a Keurig single-cup brewing system, which requires a seemingly interminable THREE MINUTES to brew a cup.  It does make a remarkably good cup-o-joe, so I put up with the delay.

I have used a wide variety of coffeemakers over the years.  I started with a stovetop percolator in my first apartment which made terrible coffee.  Luckily I was working the breakfast shift in a kitchen so I could have it at work.  I have used a couple of different Melitta drip cone models, but they take too long for me at that hour.  I had an electric espresso machine at one point that made excellent coffee, but it was far too complicated for me before I have had caffeine.  I used a Moka Pot for awhile, the flaw with that one being that I had to operate the stove; open flames that early are problematic.  (Nothing is more brutal than setting off your smoke alarm before your first cup!)  I bought a Neapolitan Pot once and used that briefly, too.  Although not technically complicated, it did involve turning on the stove (see above) and then, unbelievably, grasping the whole, scalding hot contraption from atop the flame and TURNING IT UPSIDE DOWN.  Okay, so that one lasted about a week.  I even own a French Press Pot, but I rarely use it.  It is, though, my favorite way to order coffee when having breakfast at Muse.

There is a major flaw with nearly all of these brewing systems.  You must, annoyingly, clean them before you can use them again.  In the many years that I worked early shifts (i.e. 4:00 am), there was no stopping to clean a coffee pot before I went out the door.  Facing a dirty coffeepot upon awakening is NOT a good way to start the day, let me tell you.  This is what led me to Nescafe Instant.  There was never a dirty pot to clean and I could alter the strength to suit my taste.  I want to make clear that I was not drinking just any instant coffee.  It had to be Nescafe and it had to be from a particular country of origin.  Nestle makes different coffees for different markets.  I learned that the ones manufactured for the U.S. and Canada were not strong enough for me.  In my neighborhood market in Chicago, I was able to buy the Mexican version.  I have also enjoyed jars of this product from Greece, Ivory Coast, Spain and several other locations.

When we travel, one of the most important activities on our first day anywhere is figuring when and where we can get coffee the following morning.  When we are on a cruise, it’s usually easy.  Normally the buffet is open 24 hours.  If not, there is always coffee available somewhere on the ship.  On our summer driving vacations, it can be a bit more complicated.  Sometimes, we have our own coffeemaker in the room.  Sometimes, we have to get up and go out for coffee before the bed-n-breakfast has it ready.  Once, early on in our relationship, we ran into a real coffee snafu.  We checked into a bed-n-breakfast in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.  It was a beautiful room in a lovely, charming inn.  We were informed, upon check-in, that coffee would be available at 8:00 am sharp.  The tone of this declaration clearly left no room for discussion.  8:00, take it or leave it.  We are always awake hours before this, so we set out after dinner to figure out where we could get an early cup.  This charming town has strict zoning laws, so there was no Starbucks.  There was no fast food of any kind…not even an early-opening McDonald’s.  The one coffee shop on the Main Street opened at 10:00 am.  WHAT???  There was a diner in town, but they were closed for the evening and had no sign posted with their hours.  Our AAA guidebook told us they opened at 8:00, but still…so late?  Our conclusion:  There is no coffee available to the public in Niagara-on-the-Lake before EIGHT O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING.  We first found this criminal, then entirely laughable.  It’s an adorable little town, but not really set up for guests like us.

Lists of Food(s)

Lists of food(s) have been an ongoing part of my life.  First entering my consciousness as menus in restaurants, they have taken on myriad other forms.  Grocery lists; kitchen prep lists; freezer inventories; backstock pull lists; holiday baking lists; catering menus.  Some represent a form from which to make choices; on some, every item will require my attention.  Some are exciting and inspire anticipation;  others instill a sense of dread.  Food is so often a subject in my life that I find there is no escaping lists of food(s).

When presented with a menu in a restaurant, there are dozens of things to consider besides the obvious question of “What am I in the mood for?”  What are the specialties of the restaurant?  What might be in season?  What might be a good or a bad choice today?  What are my companions ordering?  What have I eaten in the past day or two, and what do I plan on eating later?  My favorite type of menu is no menu…when I am simply given a menu as a guide to what the chef has prepared that day.  Some of the best restaurants I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying are set up in this way.  Chez Panisse in Berkeley offers one menu each evening…take it or leave it.  Accommodations can be made for allergies or extreme dislikes, but you are pretty much putting yourself in the hands of the chef.  Thomas Keller’s per se in New York offers just two alternatives each night:  A Tasting of Vegetables and a Chef’s Tasting Menu.  (Charlie Trotter in Chicago offers this same, simplified choice.)  Usually one must make only a couple of decisions from these long lists.  When I am ensconced in a restaurant of this caliber, I like to believe that no one knows better what the best thing for me to eat that day would be than the chef .

Several summers ago, I had travelled to New York for the weekend to eat.  We had Sunday dinner at Blue Hill and had an awesome example of eating off menu.  Our reservation was later in the evening and when we were seated, we had already decided that we would do the Chef’s Tasting Menu we had seen posted.  Once our cocktail orders were taken, we were informed that the Tasting Menu was sold out for the night and we would need to order from the standard, a la carte listings.  Our disappointment was quite evident.  The waiter returned a few moments later to say that he had relayed our sadness to  the kitchen and if we were willing, the chef would just cook for us without a written menu.  We instantly agreed!  There were some daring dishes and many variations on seasonal themes, but overall the effect was outstanding.

Another menu that I rely on quite heavily is the one on the side of my freezer.  Decidedly less haute than the ones above, it is nonetheless appealing.  Each week, I cook some things to eat during the week and freeze them in individual portions.  I began this practice when I was working long hours in kitchens, with no desire to cook at the end of a grueling day.  Batches of chili, marinara sauce, macaroni & cheese and the like provided quick, comforting suppers when paired with a fresh salad.  Keeping track of the dozens of frozen blocks of food necessitated the creation of a freezer inventory.  This became my nightly “menu.”

There have been lists of Christmas cookies;  one massive list of everything we ate on a ten day cruise;  other lists of what we ate on vacations or at various buffets; even a list of all my holiday baking ingredients that I keep on the chalkboard in our kitchen at home.  These lists fill me with a sense of order and organization.  At times, they end up feeling like some sort of wretched excess, leaving me wishing I had never compiled them in the first place.  Ultimately, though, the Virgo in me craves the construction of these archives.  They are a record of my knowledge that I can refer back to when thinking about what to cook or bake or eat or order in the future.

Fine Dining

When I dream about the best meal I’ve ever had, I dream about Eleven Madison Park.  I think the lack of pretense was part of it (vs. Daniel); the beauty of the room was part (vs. Blue Hill);  the fact that we had the table for the entire evening, with no thought of a second seating waiting for us to finish (vs. per se).  The food is never the issue when I compare these experiences.  The level of food quality in my three and four star meals is almost always beyond reproach.  What ends up setting things apart are the most minute details.  The way the napkin is folded (or not) when a diner leaves the table;  the shape and material of a breadbasket;  the failure to offer a second glass of wine.  When I am spending  hundreds of dollars on a meal, I think I have a right to be aware of these details.  There are right ways (and wrong) to do everything in fine dining service.  There are ways to make that experience excel above and beyond traditional standards.  There are times when something unexpected can surprise and delight even the most jaded amongst us.   A finger bowl garnished with an orchid blossom; the thoughtful addition of an extra serving to make sharing a dish simpler; the offer of a bottle of post-prandial cognac.  More often than not, the meal is remembered as a series of these small moments interspersed with extraordinary food.  Eleven Madison Park offered many of these moments (including a personal note received in the mail days later), while La Grenouille offered almost none.  There was nothing wrong with La Grenouille, it’s just that there was nothing out of the ordinary.  All expectations were fulfilled, yet none were exceeded.  Don’t we enter into these evenings with such high expectations, hoping that we will be surprised?

This is the post that made me think about EMP.

Sunset on the NCL Pearl

Taken near the end of the cruise, this is us looking serene.

We had a grand time on the Pearl.  Although we opted for a simple inside cabin, we agreed that this, our sixth cruise, was the best ever.  We liked this ship the best.  Its public spaces were the nicest of any we had experienced.  There was rarely a sense of the ship feeling crowded, despite 2400 passengers and more than a thousand crew being onboard.  Our Friends of Dorothy meetups had the bonus of being hosted and this made us feel that NCL had gone out of its way, rather than just including them on the schedule as an afterthought.  We made some interesting and rewarding choices on our shore excursions, especially the petroglyphs at Acapulco and the coffee plantation in Costa Rica.  Of course, the experience of transiting the Panama Canal was also a once in a lifetime treat.  And then there was the food….

Ah, the food.  We have generally been very happy with the food on all of our cruise vacations.  We had some minor concerns this time around, what with two weeks of eating and all.  We honestly felt that this sailing offered the BEST FOOD EVER.  The variety was simply amazing.  We never tired of the choices.  The quality was the highest that we could hope for.  The quantity was mind-boggling.  The buffet setup offered the best flow of any we have seen.  Extras such as the ice cream bar, chocolate fountain and afternoon tea station were a big plus.  The dining rooms were also excellent, offering fourteen different days of menus so we never felt bored.  We both gained more weight than we would like to admit!

We met some wonderful new friends on this trip as well.  Richard and Bill are such a great couple and it was a real treat getting to know them.  They generously invited us to their cabin multiple times to take in the sunset on their balcony.  We also enjoyed a nightcap several times with other new buddies from our FOD meetups.  The people we had met through Cruise Critic online before we even sailed were great too!  We participated in a cabin crawl that gave us a chance to view a variety of cabins, including oceanviews, balconies and a whole range of suites.  The most spectacular of these was the Garden Villa, which accommodates six guests in more than 5000 square feet of luxury, including a private hot tub, butler service and four bathrooms!  It was more cabin than we could ever hope for and we felt lucky to get the chance to see it.

The staff on the ship was also among the best we have experienced.  Our Cruise Director, Andy Steinhauser, put together action packed days and nights that kept us as occupied as we wanted to be.  His assignment of a staff member to our daily meetings was a wonderful treat.  Our host, Erwin Baltazar, offered us a genuine feeling of welcome.  He was engaging and friendly and very, very funny.  Of all the hundreds of other waiters, chefs, bartenders, receptionists and  room stewards we encountered, we felt they all were going above and beyond to make our cruise simply unforgettable.

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